For many elementary school students, learning about the civil rights movement means lessons devoted to Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks; far fewer learn about Mamie Till-Mobley. Author Angela Joy and illustrator Janelle Washington hope that will change with the publication of their picture-book biography, Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement (Roaring Brook, Aug. 9).

Joy already knew the story of Emmett Till, the Black teenager who, in 1955, was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered after accusations that he flirted with or whistled at Carolyn Bryant Donham, a White grocery store proprietor. However, she knew little about his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, until she happened to listen to a podcast. Till-Mobley’s insistence on an open casket at her son’s funeral and on speaking to the press inspired Rosa Parks and helped set into motion the civil rights movement. “I thought that was a really important part of history that I was missing personally,” Joy tells Kirkus via a Zoom call from Minneapolis. “I thought the story needed to be told.”

As she researched—and read Till-Mobley’s book, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America (2003), co-written by Christopher Benson—she was struck by the woman’s strength. Till-Mobley’s father left when she was a child, and she was abused by her first two husbands before enduring the loss of her son. Yet she went on to raise money for the NAACP, become a teacher, and create the Emmett Till Players, a speech and theater group, before her death in 2003. “What was it in this woman that made her so strong, so brave, that she would stand up in front of the press and ask for help for her son? What made her demand that her son’s body be sent back when the sheriff was going to bury him that day?” Joy asks.

Joy discovered that Till-Mobley had taught Emmett to whistle to help him overcome a stutter. “Knowing that maybe that wolf whistle was him just trying to get out words is devastating,” says Joy.

Depicting the fateful encounter was a challenge for Washington. She started brainstorming and wound up focusing on the whistle, she says on a Zoom call from Alexandria, Virginia. She eventually decided to represent it as a sound wave—an image echoed on the next page by a cloud of smoke emanating from the train that took Emmett’s body back home to his mother. “It worked because…that whistle is connected to the train. That train is now moving his body,” she says. “I wanted to show that continuation of movement.”

Both Washington and Joy agree that Washington’s medium—paper-cut art—was ideal for the story. Created by cutting out images from paper and gluing them against tissue paper of different colors, Washington’s art is abstract, which allowed her to tell the story accurately but without disturbing young readers. “I think we've been able to avoid some of the harder parts while still communicating that something bad did happen,” says Joy.

The courtroom scenes focus on Till-Mobley; Washington’s goal was to “illustrate it without giving those that did it power…and keeping it really focused on giving Mamie that power back.” She drew inspiration from a photograph of Till-Mobley walking into the courthouse as a group of White people stared. “You could tell that she was nervous, a little scared, but she had to keep moving.” Washington portrayed the White onlookers as a menacing, silhouetted mass of shadows, with Till-Mobley taking center stage.

Though Choosing Brave is concerned with history, the themes it tackles feel all too immediate. Referring to the acquittal of the killers, Joy writes, “A second murder mourned— / the death of decency.” “When you believe in something like the legal system, and it fails you, that feels like a death,” Joy says. “For so many years, we felt that things were getting better for Black and brown people. And then we wake up, and Trayvon Martin happens. Freddie Gray happens. Tamir Rice happens.”

In 2020, Washington created a paper-cut image of Breonna Taylor—who had been shot by police in March of that year—for Oprah magazine. It was an emotionally draining experience but an important one, she says. “These things need to be told.”

At a time when children’s books that grapple with racism are increasingly under fire, both Joy and Washington know how important—and vulnerable—their work is. Joy admires the authors who continue to write despite their books being banned. “Because that shows that they’ve chosen to be brave. And I think that’s what we’re doing. The publisher, the editor, the illustrator, myself, we’re choosing to be right, we’re choosing to tell the story and to weather whatever comes our way.”

Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.